William Blake (1757–1827)
by William Corbett
Between the ages of eight and ten William Blake had his first vision. A lonely boy, Blake took long walks through his native London to the farms on the city’s outskirts. One day in the town of Peckham Rye, he saw a tree filled with angels. On a later walk he saw angels among the farmers who were gathering hay. Blake believed in the truth of these visions his entire life. If they came from his imagination, that made the angels no less real for him, since Blake believed that we know the truth not through reason but through imagination.
Life and Writing Style
Blake was born in London on 28 November 1757 and he lived in or around the city throughout his life. His father, James Blake, was a hosier who made and sold socks and stockings from a store on the first floor of their house. His mother was Catherine Hermitage Blake. Since Blake was all but unknown Page 112 | Top of Articleas a poet and artist in his lifetime, our knowledge of his life has great gaps. Of his early education, we know only that he read the Bible passionately and showed uncommon powers of imagination. His parents, recognizing his love for drawing, sent him to a drawing school at age ten. In 1772, now fifteen, Blake was apprenticed to a well-known engraver, James Basire. He completed his apprenticeship in 1779. From then on he earned his living as a printer and engraver, running a series of shops in which he sold the work he made.
Blake is commonly grouped with England’s Romantic poets, but although he was their contemporary, he has little in common with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. Unlike them, Blake worked at a trade; he is the only major British poet to have been a tradesman. Blake lived in the city while the other Romantics lived in the countryside or traveled in Europe. The others were all well known for their poetry, but Blake’s poems were read by only a few during his lifetime. Indeed, Wordsworth and the rest probably never read a word of Blake’s. Religion is at the center of Blake’s visionary work; this is not true of other Romantic poetry. Blake stands today as the last great British religious poet.
Blake’s is an unconventional religion drawn not from the church of his time but directly from the Bible. Much of his work satirizes* and condemns conventional religion for its corrupting influence on the imagination. He believed that he knew the true Christian religion, and he held so fiercely to his beliefs that many who knew him found him opinionated, ornery, and difficult. Even one of his great twentieth-century champions and editors, Geoffrey Keynes, called Blake “a strange individual.” It is just this quality of strangeness that gives Blake’s work a voice and vision as powerfully individual today as they were two centuries ago.
Songs of Innocence and of Experience
Blake’s best-known work is Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He first printed Songs of Innocence in 1789; Songs of Experience followed in 1794. When he combined the two in 1815 he added the subtitle Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Only twenty-five copies of this book now exist, and they are in the hands of private collectors, museums, Page 113 | Top of Articleand libraries. Since Blake printed them over a period of years, they are all different in some way from one another.
The original Songs of Innocence contains twenty-seven pages, each bearing a design printed from a copper plate. Blake believed words and drawings said the same thing in different ways, but at first he did not know how to combine them. In 1787 his beloved younger brother Robert, the only member of his family Blake was close to, died. Robert remained as present and significant to Blake in death as he had been in life. In 1787, as Blake worked to unify word with image, Robert’s spirit came and instructed him. Thus inspired, Blake invented the method that Geoffrey Keynes described in the introduction to Songs of Innocence and Experience as
the laborious transfer of a written text to an etched copper-plate, from which an impression could be printed in ink of any color that he chose. The text would then be combined on the copper with illustrations or simple decorations harmonizing with the script, after which the whole print was colored with pen or paint-brush, varied as he pleased in each copy that he made (p. xiii).
To get the script to read left to right, Blake had to etch the words of his poems backward on the copper. This required many hours and great concentration. In the end Blake produced a hand-printed book similar to the illuminated* manuscripts that monks made during the Middle Ages. Over the years the books changed as his skill as an engraver grew and he employed fresh ideas about line and color.
The Songs of Innocence, Blake wrote in his introductory poem, are “happy songs/Every child may joy to hear.” In this world, all is pure and joyous for children, shepherds, “Old John, with white hair,” and the children’s nurse whose “Nurse’s Song” runs,
When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And every thing else is still.
“Then come home, my children, the sun is gone downPage 114 | Top of Article
And the dews of night arise;
Come, corne, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.”
“No, no let us play, for it is yet day
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly
And the hills are all cover’d with sheep.”
“Well, well, go & play till the light fades away
And then go home to bed.”
The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh’d
And all the hills echoed.
The nurse hears the children’s laughing voices and is content. But dusk is falling and night coming on. She calls the children to come in but they, seeing that there is still light in the sky, refuse. “It is yet day,” they tell her, pointing to the birds and sheep, whose safety they see as extending to themselves. The nurse is persuaded and lets the children go on about their happy business. This is a world in perfect harmony, where the voices of children are not just heard but listened to. The children’s innocent understanding of the world is a virtue and not something from which they need to be protected. Blake decorated the poem with an illustration of children playing ring-around-the-rosy at sunset. Seated under a tree, the nurse watches over them.
The parallel poem in Songs of Experience is in startling contrast to Songs of Innocence. The accompanying illustration is of a woman standing over a boy, whose hair she is grooming. Behind them sits a girl, her head down, seemingly forlorn. Here, “Nurse’s Song” reads,
When the voices of children are heard on the green
And whisp’rings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.
Then come home my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Your spring & your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.
No children laugh, but some whisper in the dale. They do not want to be overheard by the nurse, whom they may fear or distrust.
Hearing the children, the nurse thinks of her own youth, thoughts that turn her green with envy and then pale as if frightened. Fearful, she calls the children home, warning them that their play is a waste of time. Their winter and night, which she can see because of her “experience” but they cannot, will inevitably come. There are now two worlds, that of children, who are no longer innocent but whisper and hide in the dale, and that of the nurse, the voice of experience, who uses fear to keep the children in line.
The lamb, the very soul of innocence, which is depicted as so delighting children in Songs of Innocence, has its contrast Page 116 | Top of Articlein the Songs of Experience in “The Tyger,” Blake’s most famous poem. It is a poem that asks fourteen questions with the force of a hammer striking an anvil, but no answers come. “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” the poem asks. Because the songs show two “contrary states,” Blake may expect the reader to answer yes, God made the innocent lamb and the tiger of “fearful symmetry.” But this leads to another, more profound question: If God made both the good of innocence and the evil of experience, how can we reconcile the two?
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
For Blake these contrary states, as he wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, are fundamental: “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.” But, he continued, “From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.” But Blake believed this conception of the contraries to be wrong. In teaching children to passively accept her authority, the nurse of experience robs them of their innocence and capacity for joy. The “religious” who, in Blake’s view, meant to enslave humankind, had it backward. Good is not passive but active. “Energy,” he wrote, “is eternal delight.” He believed, as “the Tyger” suggests, that we are caught between contraries, and that they are not to be resolved but maintained and learned from.
To instruct us, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell gives seventy “Proverbs of Hell.” They begin, “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” As seeds grow into plants, so do we as humans learn. We teach others how to harvest. In the winter we enjoy what has come of our labors. The process of learning is thus a natural cycle. That seems clear enough, but then Blake continues: “Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead”; “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”; “The cut worm forgives the plow.” These lines that sound like folk wisdom are brainteasers. Does Blake mean that we should not honor the dead? Must we follow the road of excess to gain wisdom? Why should the worm forgive the plow? Another proverb states, “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” This may be key. If we learn what is more than enough then we will Page 117 | Top of Articleknow what is enough. The road of excess will have led to the palace of wisdom. But does Blake expect us to live by these proverbs?
Peter Ackroyd, author of an excellent biography of Blake, holds that in the proverbs Blake is both “playful and serious.” This is helpful because in thinking about Good and Evil it is easy to lose our sense of humor and easy to assume that the poet who writes about such big subjects has no sense of humor of his own. Blake liked to go too far, to mock, and to challenge, to follow his imagination wherever it led. “The cistern* contains,” runs another proverb, “the fountain overflows.” He did not hold on to his visions but poured them forth. “Exuberance* is beauty” is another line in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and the twenty-six-year-old Blake who wrote this work was certainly exuberant. “Enough! or Too Much” is the last proverb. Coming at the end of the list, this is both a joke and a reminder to the reader that to learn what is enough or too much we must satisfy our curiosity. Whatever Blake means here, he is against moderation in all things. The proverbs urge us to follow no authority other than that of our own senses and imagination.
Blake elaborated his visions in his so-called prophetic books, which he worked on from 1789, when he completed The Book of Thel, until 1818, when he completed ferusalem. He created these books in the same illuminated form as the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Although Blake came to master the method he had invented, it still demanded enormous effort and painstaking care. To support himself and his wife, Catherine Boucher, whom he married in 1782, Blake made and sold engravings illustrating popular books, such as Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, or produced engravings for the poems of his patron, William Hayley.
While many of Blake’s most beautiful and powerful designs illustrate the prophetic books, the poems themselves are hard going. In them Blake created his own mythological figures. Urizen, Rintrah, Enitharmon, and the rest must be understood before the poems can be grasped, but theirs is a private world as difficult to enter as the Songs of Innocence and of Experience is easy. In these books Blake is often so inspired Page 118 | Top of Articlethat he goes beyond sense. His powerful vision becomes so dense that while readers can be carried away, it is just as easy for us to get lost. This is not poetry of beautiful lines or passages nor is Blake’s vision easy to paraphrase. It is pure poetry best approached with the help of a guide like the critic Harold Bloom.
The Man Behind the Writing
At Blake’s death on 12 August 1827 he was remembered as an artist and engraver. Peter Ackroyd writes that the world Blake lived in “distrusted and despised” the revolutionary and uncompromising vision of his poetry. Thus Blake’s genius went unrecognized until a biography by Alexander Gilchrist appeared in 1863. By that time it was already difficult to reconstruct the details of Blake’s life. We still do not know the order in which he wrote his poems, and of the years between 1810 and 1816 we have scant knowledge. The record is not rich in anecdotes,* but there are two that reveal the social and political radical Blake was.
One summer day in the early 1790s their friend Thomas Butts came to call on the Blakes. He found them in a small house in a garden behind their apartment. “Come in!” cried Blake; “it’s only Adam and Eve, you know.” They were naked, free from what Blake called “those troublesome disguises,” so as to better read aloud Milton’s Paradise Lost, an epic poem about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Blake probably believed the practice of nudity to be liberating.
In 1803 Blake moved out of London to nearby Felpham. There he quarreled with a soldier named John Scofield and threw him off his property. Scofield claimed that Blake had spoken against England’s king and for the emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, then England’s enemy who threatened to invade the country. Blake was charged with sedition,* a charge he denied. After several anxious months Blake, who had no great respect for the king and may have made that clear to the soldier, stood trial. He was acquitted, but the incident illustrates both Blake’s fiery temper and his strong political convictions.
If William Blake ever put his unique vision in a nutshell, he may have done so in the first four lines of ’Auguries of Innocence”:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
(The Complete Writings of William Blake)
WORKS BY WILLIAM BLAKE
Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Edited by Sir Geoffrey Keynes. New York: Orion Press, 1967. Includes helpful comments about each poem and provides an informative introduction.
Blake. Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets. New York: Knopf, 1994. Concentrates on the Songs and Blake’s shorter poems.
The Letters of William Blake. Edited by Geoffrey Keynes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968. Contains several illustrations and a helpful preface.
The Complete Writings of William Blake. Edited by Geoffrey Keynes. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.
The Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Edited by David V Erdman; commentary by Harold Bloom. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1970. Bloom provides eighty pages of insightful commentary.
WORKS ABOUT WILLIAM BLAKE
Ackroyd, Peter. Blake. New York: Knopf, 1996.
Keynes, Geoffrey, ed. William Blake: Poet Printer Prophet. New York: Orion Press, 1964. This coffee-table book is an excellent introduction to Blake’s designs. This well written, lively biography is the work of an Englishman who knows a great deal about the London of Blake’s time.